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Obama heads to Latin America

By Becky Brittain, CNN White House Producer
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Obama travels to Latin America
  • NEW: Obama says the trip will help strengthen key economic ties
  • President Obama departs Friday night for a five-day trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador
  • He will discuss job creation opportunities, though no new trade agreements are expected
  • First lady Michelle Obama will deliver a speech on education in Chile

Washington (CNN) -- Amid unrest in the Middle East and the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, President Barack Obama is staying the course by going ahead with his five-day trip to Latin America.

The first family will depart Friday night for stops in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, where the president will meet with the leaders of each country to discuss trade and the global economy. It will be his first visit to the three countries and a chance to talk about hemispheric challenges.

The trip is designed to help "strengthen our economic relationship with neighbors who are playing a growing role in our economic future," Obama said Friday in an op-ed published in USA Today.

The Latin American economy grew by roughly 6% last year, Obama noted. It is expected to grow by one-third by 2015, he said.

"This trip gives us an opportunity to highlight the work that has been done and will continue to be done with a very important set of global-regional partners and leaders," said Daniel Restrepo, a White House policy adviser for Western Hemisphere affairs.

"At each stop there are a series of concrete steps and agreements that will be reached on the types of issues that we pursue in the Americas," Restrepo said.

Though the United States and Brazil are the two largest democracies and economies in the Western Hemisphere, this trip is unlikely to produce any new trade initiatives.

"I think you could probably describe this for President Obama as a discovery visit. It's a get-to-know-you trip," said Stephen Johnson of the bipartisan research group Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In Brazil, Obama will meet with President Dilma Rousseff, who is just beginning her first term. The two leaders will discuss Brazil's increasing role on the global stage, something that is welcome news, according to Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

"As a core component of the kind of relationship we're building with Brazil, again, we believe that it's a relationship guided by shared interests," Rhodes said. Brazil is "a rapidly emerging power on the global stage, and we believe we can have a particularly close relationship ... because of the shared values that we have."

While in Chile, Obama and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera will hold a meeting to talk about improving trade relations with Latin America. In a briefing with White House reporters, administration officials also said energy issues will be a big part of their discussions.

On the last stop, in El Salvador, discussions with President Mauricio Funes will likely center on the country's economic growth, but will also tackle immigration, poverty, and issues with international violence.

While the White House hopes for progress on these issues, they agree the visit is more about deepening relationships with Latin America.

"If you look at any metric in the region, President Obama is a hugely popular leader," Rhodes said. "And that's important both because it makes it easier for countries to cooperate with us, and to be our partner on issues that we care about."

First lady Michelle Obama has her own schedule of events for the trip, including a cultural performance by young disadvantaged Brazilians, an education speech in Chile, and a visit with underprivileged El Salvadorans.

Obama daughters Malia and Sasha are expected to travel with their parents as part of their spring break vacation.

CNN's Alan Silverleib contributed to this report